Let me tell you about a scam PAC. They raised and spent an ungodly sum, prostituting the name of a candidate while doling out unprecedented amounts to consultants. They spoke grandly about all they would do to elect him; after all, he was the great hope voters were told they had been waiting for. Their donors, disgusted by Washington, poured money into promises to fight for change and a “conservative” vision of America. Wallets opened out of desperation for something new, but in the end, contributors were sold a bill of goods.
If I described these donors as retirees, veterans, and working class Americans who out of a deep love of country and fear for our future sent what little they could to support a rare voice engaging with them, they’d be branded as suckers conned by a scam PAC.
Perception isn’t always reality.
These donors were rich and powerful political elites –reports indicate at least one 7-figure sum may even have been foreign directed. They hired some of the best-regarded names in politics with long, lucrative histories serving the elite donor class. They were determined to buy their candidate’s way into the White House, and forked over $118-million to the super-est of all super PACs ever. Right to Rise USA PAC flushed it down a Florida toilet, never nudging their candidate past 4% in their bid to buy a presidency.
It begs a simple question: Was that not a scam? Of course, they would say no – but it’s a question that implicitly requires a belief that Americans are too stupid to be trusted with choosing who represents them in the first place. Americans don’t vote for the best-funded candidate who sent the last email or ran a final TV ad, and certainly don’t require someone to run our lives by deciding what forms of political speech and association are acceptable. Political speech is every bit as vital whether it’s wealthy elites funding their political endeavors or average Americans organizing to build the means to compete politically and take back their country from a system they see stacked against them.
This primary season has unquestionably demonstrated there is no amount of money that will convince voters to vote for someone they don’t want to vote for. If you have little to offer a weary electorate besides flashy ads and support from all the right people; if you lecture instead of listen or demean your own voters as ignorant, they will show they’ve had enough. While Jeb exemplified how money can’t cure inauthenticity, Paul Ryan & John McCain’s lopsided wins show even the best grassroots activism will not persuade voters to dislike a politician they’ve come to know. In Wisconsin and Arizona, voters made their own decision: they knew them, liked them, trusted them, and voted for them. Both sides had the opportunity to say their piece and in a fair battle of ideas, where dissenters organized and were fairly heard, one side fairly won. Primaries are good for democracy.
The Supreme Court has recognized time and again, for decades, if you can’t associate with others and raise and spend money to promote your ideas, you cannot communicate a message. The lifeblood of every political message is money—the ability to solicit, accept, and deploy contributions to further a cause. Money must be raised to support your ideas because it will rarely be heard without professionals using their time and talent to deliver those ideas to the public as effectively as possible. Without money you can’t build the organization and infrastructure needed to advance ideas, causes, or candidates – especially when challenging the status quo. Money isn’t speech; it’s the oxygen fueling the fire of free speech.
Free speech is an individual right, not granted by the government, but intrinsic to us all. I’m for the most speech from the most people in the most ways. We should trust voters to make up their own minds, including deciding what organized interests best represent them, listen to them, and act on their political desires. We should be suspicious when the objects of criticism explain how their critics are fools, their voices irrelevant, and their associations mere scams. It’s self-serving in the most obvious ways. To their credit, Paul Ryan spoke about his ideas, his goals and the Packers; John McCain spoke to his decades of service to his fellow Arizonans. They didn’t fear the speech of their opponents and, rightly, trusted their voters.
A dominant theme this election cycle – this decade – has been the extent to which the electorate is rejecting the “establishment” in both parties. An electorate tired of feeling endlessly marginalized rose up, mobilized to spread their own message, and asked neighbors, friends, and complete strangers for support. The result is an ever-growing wave of new candidates, pundits, and political organizations. Not all will win and not all will survive long. Predictably in the face of dissent, some elites, and those who feed off them, attack those who have connected with this deeply disaffected electorate; demanding they raise no money to organize and advance counterarguments to those they feel have ignored them. Elites often view the power to spend on political messaging as a privilege for a political aristocracy, even seeking to weaponize government to suppress speech they deem unacceptable.
In the self-congratulatory echo chamber of Washington, it’s easy to attack outsiders for doing exactly what insiders did to achieve power: build organizations, raise money, hire staff, pay vendors, promote ideas. But when Washington insiders stop listening, voters will find someone who will. Those tired of the status quo recognize the truest thing said by both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders: you will never solve the problem by giving power over and over again to the same people who created, and profit from, the problem. Political elites will always try to silence outsiders in favor of a system where they write the rules and rig the game. That’s something “Bernie’s Revolution” learned the hard way.
Dan Backer is founding attorney of DB Capitol Strategies, a premiere campaign finance and political law firm boutique in Alexandria, Virginia. He has served as counsel to more than 60 campaigns & candidates, PACs, and political organizations and regularly represents political law clients before the FEC and in federal court against the FEC, including as Plaintiffs’ counsel in McCutcheon v FEC (striking aggregate contribution limits, US Supreme Court).